Over the weekend fancy people in an “acquisitive mood” milled around Frieze Art Fair, discreetly making it rain while rubbing shoulders with art dealers, the dapperly dressed, and a donkey named Sir Gabriel– an animal brought there by an artist who recently broke a personal record when his statue of Hitler sold for $17.2 million at auction.
Back in Bushwick, however, less absurd things were going down at a very different kind of art happening. As far as we can tell, there wasn’t a VIP section at the opening night of Body Language, the second art show to happen at Angelina Dreem’s art and technology educational hub, Powrplnt, and the first one dedicated to paintings and other 2D works by emerging and established artists.
Since February, neighborhood teens have gathered at Powrplnt’s very own IRL space to make use of the internet lounge and attend free classes with names like “TFW Bae Clicks: coding interactions.” Dreem has been doing the free school thing for a while, all in an effort to realize a simple philosophy, that “access to technology is a right, not a privilege.” But the new brick-and-mortar has given Powrplnt whole new opportunities– they can now host screenings, performances, art shows, and the monthly series, #TFW105 (specifically dedicated to showcasing all kinds of art in a “relaxation zone”). They’re also starting to develop a real community space that people can return to again and again.
“Body Language” is one of those events, even if at first paintings might seem a little out of tune with the digital art initiatives. Sure, most of the work on display was 2D, but the show nevertheless represents the kind of results Dreem is hoping to achieve with Powrplnt’s digital-centric art and design classes– namely, diversifying the otherwise monolithic art-tech universe and opening up the art world of the future to new voices. If it works, it’ll make for a more inclusive environment (duh), but it will also result in new kinds of work being generated, and an aesthetic diversity too, both of which can propel conversations that need to happen– ones that aren’t just about straight white dudes.
It helps that “Body Language” is an approachable art show. Somehow the space doesn’t feel uptight– it’s just as welcoming as Powrplnt has always been, even with a bunch of art hanging inside. Which is sort of the whole point.
The show was curated by Tyler Thacker– an artist who you might remember from “L Train Girl,” a song he wrote as part of Greatest Hits , that won something of a cult following back in 2011. Thacker has brought together artists working with what the show bills as “contemporary figuration and/or the human body’s implications in an increasingly virtual pedagogy.” Which might be a dizzying description if you’re not familiar with the concerns of contemporary painting. Translation: basically, artists working in 2D mediums (that includes painting, printmaking, even poetry) are finding new ways to acknowledge our increasingly digitally-dominated, post-internet world in their work, something that’s inherently difficult to do without seeming overwrought, contrived, or simply just sort of annoying. Think about the first time you read Tao Lin or your initial experience with net art. It was kind of difficult to swallow, right?
Well, the artists participating in “Body Language” are so right-now that their work is well beyond that initial awkward struggle. Some of them might be emerging artists, but they’ve pushed past post-internet 101 and are exploring more complicated consequences of technological achievement and computer-based reincarnation in their work, grappling with questions like how to reconcile the human body with the digital realm and, in turn, how to portray this new figuration with paint. But the work also confronts, as, Dreem explained, “the whole idea of the figure outside of painting, and how people are using 2D- or 3D-modeling to recreate the human form.”
The most well-known artist in the show is James English Leary, one of the founders of Bruce High Quality Foundation. The art collective is Dreem’s spiritual twin in that it runs BHQF University, a non-profit art school offering free, nontraditional courses. Leary’s contribution to the show– five fun 3D paintings depicting disembodied lips, all with different descriptors like “killjoy lips,” “sly lips,” and even “bellicose lips”– instantly reminded me of John McPhee’s rant in defense of describing a mustache as “sincere,” something that drove his editor to inquire if it was possible to have an insincere mustache.
Considering Leary’s own liberal understanding of what sort of emotions lips can communicate, it’s not so surprising that he was encouraging of Powrplnt’s approach to “Body Language.” When at first Dreem and Thacker struggled with how they should go about arranging the work and adjusting the modular space, Leary reassured them. “He was really helpful, telling us, ‘You don’t have to be all art-gallery about everything, you can be a little renegade. It doesn’t have to be perfect in this setting,'” Angelina recalled.
Leary was dead-on, it seems, because it’s the various rogue approaches and so-called imperfections that make “Body Language” really intriguing.
Raul De Nieves, who Dreem described as a “queer, Mexican-American artist” based in Bushwick, contributed the one outlier work, “Fat Man,” an enormous yarn creation stuffed with balloons and held together with wood and rope. The overgrown voodoo doll is hung from the ceiling, splayed out like a teddy bear, and peering out through a devil mask frozen in a wide, maniacal grin. “It’s kind of stirring,” Dreem admitted. “I come in here when the lights are off and I’m kind of looking over my shoulder.”
It was hard to take my eyes off this piece– it balances perfectly between hilarious and twisted, but the craft and patience that went into creating a work this intricate is also mind boggling enough to hold my attention. “He’ll just sit in his studio and do this all night, like, for hours and then go out after,” Dreem laughed, referring to De Nieves’s sewing process. “He’s a maniac.”
De Nieves’s folky, funny, and fabulous work spans multiple mediums, but his intricate figurative sculptures like “Fat Man” are the most compelling (Ps1 thought the same– De Nieves was part of the Greater New York show at the museum). But the connection between “Fat Man” and the show’s virtual theme is tenuous. That is, until you consider De Nieves’s digital work, which shows the same obsession with intricacy, and demonstrates that, as an artist, he can move seamlessly between super tactile, almost gritty IRL work like “Fat Man” and his performance art pieces in which the body undergoes surreal transformations, something we see happening with the digital reinterpretations of the human form on display at the show.
See, for example, paintings by another Bushwick-based artist, Emma Stern. They depict naked, smooth-bodied avatar ladies awash in candy-colored gradients. The digital connection here is an obvious one– it’s immediately clear that Stern 3D renders these forms before painting them. I’m tempted to describe her paintings as “hyperrealistic,” but they’re not– instead of closely resembling reality, they look exactly like screen-based images. The idealized female forms look like something straight out of sci-fi cosplay porn, enhanced with the addition of horns, tails, and other of appendages you’d find in fantasy novels, which suggests trans-humanist ideas about utilizing technology to create the perfect human form. But they also bring up, as Dreem pointed out, the problematic nature of how the female body is represented online.
While Stern represents a feminist perspective that, as we know, is sorely in need of a boost online and in digital design in general, the show spotlights another artist whose experiences speak to the problem of inequality in access to technology and the internet– Powrplnt’s bread and butter. Dreem described the 23-year-old North-Carolina based artist Mark Pieterson as “my new favorite person.”
“He’s originally from Ghana, an immigrant, and basically, he didn’t have access to technology until he moved to the U.S. when he was 13,” Dreem explained. And yet, despite the obstacles, Pierterson’s is the most net-centric work in the show and offers a complex exploration of the body as it relates to the net experience. “He’s a net artist in the truest sense,” Dreem said.
His contribution to the show, a digital print mounted on a light box titled “Back,” is an imagined online memorial. At first, I was fooled by the soft glow, convinced that Pieterson’s work was an actual screen scattered with 3D renderings of corpse-like hands stroking a cheesy photo of a grinning bald dude in glasses, presumably the deceased.
“It’s about what the afterlife looks like on the internet and how you can live posthumously on the internet,” Dreem explained. “It’s an obituary for someone and there’s this time stretch and something that anime represents in its ultimate form– the post-human.” The whole thing is a bizarre mess, a traffic jam of digital styles and pulsating, ever-changing purple infinite. In other words, it’s a perfect depiction of the internet, a place with no rhyme or reason, where even something as archaic and rigid as death rituals are transformed into anarchic, free-flowing memory orbits where ex-girlfriends battle it out and creepy uncles leave illiterate RIP messages filled with pseudo-religious justifications for their pro-life stance.
“He had the light box made in China and shipped here, which also plays into the whole thing about lines and territories being not so strict these days,” Dreem explained. “Life/afterlife, borders/ no borders– it’s a very fluid engagement with everything.”
What’s unique about Powrplnt’s approach is also based on a fluid understanding of things, and the idea that there shouldn’t be any separation between their teen outreach programming and the work on display here– that the art shows can engage meaningfully with the work the kids are making.
Eventually, student-led art shows will draw directly from Powrplnt’s video production, music production, and web design classes. “We imagine this video screening series happening– we started working on it in the first round of classes and we’re honing in on it more in the second round,” Dreem said. The very first exhibition at Powrplnt, for example, “What Happens When…” was dedicated to screening dozens of video art pieces chosen from more than 100 open-call submissions and, down the line, Dreem says they’re hoping to host live music events too, where both musicians and DJs will perform.
While “Body Language” didn’t include work by any Powrplnt students, Dreem said that her motivation to host Thacker’s show was about shaping Powrplnt as a legitimate art space.
“We’re bringing that painter who’s on the verge of a fine-art conversation into this realm– I don’t want to be in the fine-art conversation, because that’s so stuffy,” Dreem said. “But I want to be on the verge of it, where we’re peripheral and a little outsider but still doing commendable, hard work that is actually aesthetically-aligned.” And this is exactly how Powrplnt differs from other non-profits, and is doing work that few other organizations can or will do.
“Here, people can have that aesthetic conversation about the work,” she pointed out. “Because a lot of nonprofit work, it doesn’t have the rigor to compare itself to a contemporary art conversation, it’s more about feelings. I like the idea of blending feelings with actual professional advancement and having working artists critique young artists’ work, and having that be a part of mentoring. You know, saying ‘That’s been done before, you gotta try this,’ or ‘How can you push that a little bit further?’”
“Body Language” is on view at Powrplnt, 562 Evergreen Avenue in Bushwick now through May 22 (Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday, 3 pm to 7 pm). The next round of free classes for teens begins May 30.